Shoulder pads? Power suits? What does the top businesswoman wear in the Nineties? The 24th Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year Award was held at Claridges on Wednesday. Here, the winner and finalists reveal how they dress for success. Interviews by Katie Sampson, photographs by Ben Elwes

Nicola Foulston, 1997 Businesswoman of the Year, chief executive of Brands Hatch Leisure plc, the largest organiser and promoter of motorsport in Europe, with a turnover in excess of pounds 14m.

'I am a loud person with a reputation for wearing strong colours. I want my clothes to say, "I'm no walkover. I mean business". When I arrived at Brands Hatch I made it clear that the jeans and sweatshirt dress code should change. Dressing for the workplace isn't about fashion but about demonstrating how one is working to the highest level of one's ability. Feminine outfits rarely suit the workplace, flowing skirts are impractical and more suited to a Sunday afternoon on the lake, whereas classic designs show that you are serious about career building, working late and contributing to the office environment.

I favour designers whose colours match their earlier collections; most of my clothes are from Escada, a German designer. Expense is justified by durability, a crucial requirement. My clothes get a jolly good hammering leaping in and out of cars, rushing around race circuits and construction sites, and I need to wear flat shoes. I shop once or twice a year, one hit at a time, but my housekeeper has now banned me from shopping because I have so many clothes.

I don't care if people tell me that I look like Sue Ellen because my wardrobe is not a uniform, it's very much part of me, but sometimes I have to make a conscious decision not to power-dress. Do many women change into casual clothes at the end of the day? It simply never occurred to me, probably because I've always got my work hat on, but as I've got older I've moved into trousers and flat shoes for the sake of comfort.

If I am meeting with a friend I am always better dressed than she is. I am simply no good at just throwing on jeans and a shirt.'

Nicola Foulston wears: peach jacket and checked trousers by Escada; black body by M&S; shoes by Chanel; jewellery by Tiffany; watch by Cartier and make-up by Lancome.

Sue Lyons (right), deputy managing director and director of customer operations, Rolls-Royce Military Aero Engines Limited.

'My motto has always been 'follow your instincts', including the one that tells me to challenge the status quo; the 'We've always done it this way' attitude is a red rag to a bull. Working in a male-dominated profession means that there's no mould to break and therefore no expectations. I've always ignored the power-dressing ethos.

Engineering is a relatively conservative profession so whilst dressing smartly, I prefer neutral, serious clothes which act as a backdrop rather than a statement. I would rather my personality stood out than my clothes. Since I spend a lot of time travelling, meeting customers and visiting workshops, comfort, value and wearability are the features I look for. Austin Reed or Options suits and separates are fine. If I feel appropriately dressed then I feel comfortable. I would love not to have to think about my wardrobe, but the fact that no one has ever commented on it adversely is a good sign.'

Sue Lyons wears: black and white jacket, black trousers and camisole top all by Marella; shoes by Bally; hand-bag by The Bridge; make-up by Clarins.

Andrea Wonfor (left), joint managing director of Granada Productions.

'Fortunately there's little pressure to dress formally within programme- making, but I still heave a sigh of relief when I don't have board meetings and can go to work in jeans. I think better when I dress casually.

I live in Newcastle, but I also have flats in Manchester and London and my wardrobe is spread out between them - and I have three hairdryers. Occasionally I like to wear something eccentric but now that I am in an executive position I need easy-to-wear, plain and comfortable clothes. Short cuts to style are invaluable; for example, wearing trousers because they hide the holes in my tights. Changing in the loo at work is a favourite pastime and Marks & Spencer is my saviour; within an hour I can find two new suits, a dress and underwear. The only designer that springs to mind is Versace, but I was probably inadvertently thinking of Ab Fab. Women are now at ease with succeeding at their job while expressing their femininity and individuality, so when I come across a woman who is blatantly power- dressing I am suspicious. Similarly, these days career women automatically tone down exhibitionism just as men don't go around wearing tight-crotched trousers. The key? Underplay rather than overplay and always wear something that makes you feel happy.'

Andrea Wonfor wears: purple skirt-suit by Principles; shirt and shoes by M&S; make-up by Estee Lauder.

Virginia Lopalco (left), co-founder and product development director, Pasta Reale, Britain's brand-leading fresh pasta company.

'I always come to work properly dressed, although I may immediately change into my kitchen whites and hairnet. I want to demonstrate to my staff and clients that although I am in charge, I am still a female - tidy and elegant with just enough make-up to show that I care about myself as well as my business. Power-dressing is important because it portrays a dominating female who knows what she wants . Properly groomed, I know I will be respected. I am not the 'Italian mama' type - from the board meeting to the kitchen I am the same person. Trousers would diminish my personality and my femininity. Being Italian I was taught to separate smart clothes from casual clothes and to carry myself well; it's a shame that British women often wear clothes which hang badly on them. Many British designers like Aquascutum are finally catering for the successful, older career woman, but I still buy many of my clothes in Italy. My one weakness is for gold and diamonds but only in moderation; I don't want to look like a chandelier.'

Virginia Lopalco wears: beige checked skirt-suit by Planet; shoes by Val Dal.

Bridget Blow (left), Managing Director, ITnet, one of the country's leading outsourcing information technology companies.

'Ibelieve that when people look at me they are getting a view of my business. Running a service business, I need and want to look approachable so I adapt my outfits to suit the needs of the client, just as I adapt the style in which we work. We try to mirror the customers' culture - for example, a presentation to central government requires formal dress whereas local government or the commercial sector might feel at ease with more relaxed clothes. Above all, I need to make the customer feel comfortable with me, just as I need to be comfortable with myself. I wouldn't wear madly expensive clothes unless I was going to be with others who were, merchant bankers, for example. If I don't know what to wear I will always wear the same dark suit, but I don't like the mannish kind. I have quite a lot of Jaeger stuff, but I will buy from all kinds of places. Smart shoes with high heels are important to me but they have to be comfortable otherwise I could look ridiculous.

I have remarked on inappropriate clothing worn by my staff in the past. Certainly if a girl came into the office wearing hot pants I would have to have a quiet word with her. But I want to be an individual as much as anyone else.'

Bridgit Blow wears: yellow jacket and black skirt by Escada; shoes by Russell & Bromley; make-up by Estee Lauder.